Teaching kiddos to regulate their emotions



On this episode of Voices of Your Village, I got to hang out with my pal Kristie on her Pre-K Teach and Play Podcast. An accomplished author, sought-after consultant, and educator’s educator, Dr. Kristie Pretti-Frontczak spent 16 years as a tenured professor at Kent State University before leaving to lead a {r}evolution in early care and education. Through comprehensive classes, thought-provoking keynotes, and practical resources, she’s guiding educational professionals toward developing their emotional intelligence, reclaiming children’s right to learn through play, and reimagining more inclusive classrooms. We got to dive into the topic of teaching kiddos to regulate their emotions.

A former colleague and I developed a method for responding to emotions in a way that builds emotional intelligence called the Collaborative Emotion Processing (CEP) method. The CEP method has five components, and one of the components is adult-child interactions, which is the one everyone wants to know about. Within this component are five phases - what we go through to process an emotion - and one of these phases is coping. So many of us are turning to coping mechanisms instead of coping strategies - we naturally turn to coping mechanisms because we are designed this way for survival; however, coping strategies are necessary for emotional intelligence, and therefore necessary to be taught at a young age. Oftentimes we want to quickly jump to problem-solving and skip over coping with the emotion. If we tap into a coping strategy, we will feel the hard thing for longer than if we just numb it with a mechanism, but that’s just a short term fix. 

Kristie and I chatted about how each of us views self-regulation, and how others in society view it as well. I personally don’t like the self-regulation that is being marketed -  kiddos are being expected to have self-control or not express their emotions, and as a result, they’re actually suppressing their emotions - and we’re incorrectly calling this self-regulation. This causes a lack of emotional processing, and then we’re seeing it come out in other, less desirable ways. One issue we discussed is that so many of us have grown up in a culture in which an adult in our life has minimized our feelings. For example, most of us have heard things like: “Oh, you’re okay!” “You’re fine!” “Suck it up!” “You don’t need to be nervous about going to school for the first time.” “Don’t worry about that.” What was really being said was, “Your hard feelings make me feel uncomfortable.” As a result, as adults we don’t know how to feel those things ourselves, so we don’t know how to teach our tiny humans to. A lot of my work is working with adults to build these things. We have to know how to feel an emotion before regulating an emotion. For me, self-regulation means kids learning what it feels like when they are having that hard feeling, and then how to find their calm and control it in their body so they’re not throwing something across the room or hitting another kid so that they can then tap into a coping strategy that helps them feel calm again so that they can solve the problem. A lot of times what we’re doing is saying, “Don’t hit,” or “Don’t throw that.” We might then tell the kiddo to stand in the corner until they’re calm, and what the tiny human learns is that if they express a hard feeling, they’re cast off to the side until they appear calm, but they’re really not. We need to remember that kiddos, and even us adults, need time to feel the emotion before being expected to be calm. Some tiny humans have the ability to verbalize that they’re not ready to be calm yet, but a lot of times, as Kristie added, this isn’t a conscience awareness. We developed a flow chart with the CEP method to give us as adults a guide to determine if our kiddo is ready to go to the next step, yet. When we identify their emotion (for example, frustration) and offer up a couple of coping strategies (for example a hug or to read a book), they may not be ready and may need more time to feel their frustration. 

Kristie brought up some common rebuttals to this: what if we don’t have all day to give them time to feel their big emotion? What if we need to get out the door to be somewhere? I’m still going to hold boundaries (it’s time to go, for example), but what I’m not doing at this moment is jumping to problem-solving to make them stop expressing. The expression may continue in the car or classroom rather than the playground. We often jump to solving the problem because we fear we appear to not have control if we have a child who is expressing an emotion at a time or place that it is inconvenient - it is not kiddos’ job to express their emotions at a time that is convenient for us. 

Kristie also pointed out that many believe giving a negative behavior attention is just reinforcing it, but she believes we actually shouldn’t ignore a behavior, and I couldn’t agree more. If we ignore it, they are not building the skill set that they need. Every behavior is a communication - they are saying this is where I am right now, and here is the skill set I don’t have - in a rational brain, they may know what they’re supposed to do - but in a feelings brain, just like you and me, they don’t. If, on the other hand, they are seeking attention, then we need to teach the child to ask for attention in a different way.

Sensory systems play a huge role in emotional regulation. I created what I call the Triangle of Growth, which are the only three things I’m paying attention to developmentally for kiddos birth to five: language development, emotional development, and sensory development. If we are seeing a language delay, for example, we should ask ourselves if we see any delays or challenges in the other two areas because one is usually caused by another. Kristie asked me to dive a bit deeper into the sensory systems and how important an awareness about them is in making various determinations. The work of OTs is so, so important. 

We ended our chat with the difference between coping mechanisms versus coping strategies. One numbs our feelings (mechanisms), and the other helps us process.(strategies). Every single person listening to this has coping mechanisms for survival, and it’s necessary to maintain some of our coping mechanisms. Mechanisms are a quick fix, while strategies allow us to be in that feeling for longer. Coping mechanisms begin as things like pacifiers and lovies, and evolve into things like binge-watching a show or having a glass of wine. In our book coming out in 2020, we have a whole list of common mechanisms for kiddoes and common mechanisms for adults. Kristie also pointed out the one action can be either a mechanism or a strategy depending on its intention or how it’s applied. For example, if I go running obsessively to avoid the emotional processing, then it’s a mechanism, but otherwise, it can also be a strategy. I also dive deeper into coping mechanisms and strategies in Episode 38 of Voices of Your Village. 

We don’t have to problem-solve for our kiddos - if we do, then we’re going to keep seeing the problem over and over. Teaching kids that they can have hard feelings and that we are okay with them - that we can handle their hard feelings and they’re not responsible for feeling calm to make us feel comfortable - and they can tap into coping strategies when they’re ready so that we can problem-solve when they’re ready - is what I want people to take away from this. As Kristie noted, self-regulation must be intentionally taught just as reading and math are. This is important work. We don’t read to an infant expecting them to read back to us the next day; we read to an infant expecting them to read back to us years later. This is a long-term game, and you’ve gotta commit to it now. 


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